I’m sitting at Panera Bread trying to do my writerly thing, but it’s almost impossible to concentrate because this lady at a nearby table is on her cell phone and she’s a yeller. I’m not trying to eavesdrop, but it’s hard not to listen.
She’s doing some research with a Comcast representative. There’s lots of talk about monthly rates and cancellation fees. She yeses and uh-huhs a bit, and I start to think maybe the phone call will be ending soon. Good, maybe I can get back to the essay I’m supposed to be working on.
But then the conversation takes a different turn. Apropos of nothing, the woman says into the mobile, “Can I ask you a question? Are you a Christian?”
Remarkably, it appears that the Comcast representative is indeed a Christian, since the woman on my end responds, “I knew it! Because, you know, I felt the presence of God!”
I think about the phrase, “Presence of God.” I have felt the “Presence of God,” only a few times in my life. I suppose, if I were a true believer, I’d say I felt the Presence of God the first time I held each of my children, the first time I heard Beethoven’s Ninth, and the first time I made love to my husband. Major milestones, all.
But this woman felt the Presence of her God in an everyday transaction. Her search for a phone carrier was an extension of her search for salvation. That’s pretty impressive.
She continues, “I wasn’t going to call you guys, ‘cause I already talked to Verizon. I called them first. But something was telling me to call you, and now I know: it was God! I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my savior, and he brought me to you!” The joy and optimism in her voice nearly makes me gag on my spinach.
It takes every ounce of my self-control not to look around to find some sympathetic neighbor at whom I can roll my eyes. Also, I’m desperate to get a peek at this loony tunes who thinks her savior is with her, speeding through the invisible telephone wires.
But I can tell this is just the beginning, so I bide my time. And now she’s saying, “You know, I was having the worst day, and I’m so glad I called you. My day was just terrible until now, and now that I know you’ve accepted Jesus too, my day just got so much better...”
“…But don’t give the devil an inch,” she warns, “‘cause he’ll take a mile.”
The easy thing to do would be to laugh. I’m an agnostic – a “cultural,” barely practicing Jew sitting in a public space listening to a very loud woman proclaim the glory of her God. But the hard thing to do, the hardest thing for me, is to stop judging.
I think about this woman’s “terrible day,” and try to imagine what terrible means to her. It could mean that she spilled coffee on her blouse and was late for work, or it could mean that her husband left her and she just got diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The point is, we never know how others are struggling. If this woman is having a rough day and this connection to a stranger has made her life a little more bearable – who am I to judge?
Isn’t that what we all need – a sympathetic ear when we’re feeling down? A tiny connection in this universe of fast-talking strangers? A belief that maybe there’s a purpose to all the little decisions we make throughout our day, and throughout our lives? Decisions even as simple as which company to call up for a quote on phone service?
And still, compassion is hard. The rational, ironic, post-post-modern side of my brain is screaming: oh man, this will make a great story at book club tomorrow night! But the more honorable side of my brain says Stop. This is someone’s life. This is important to her. Right now. Don’t presume to understand her pain or how she could ease it.
Then there’s the Comcast rep: why was he still on the line with her? A cynic would say he’s going along with anything she wants to hear. He gets paid on commission after all, and studies show that the longer he keeps a customer on the line the more likely she is to buy. Maybe this is true, but the pauses on her side of the conversation are getting longer and longer as she listens ever more attentively. She seems to have found a soul mate. And I begin to think, “wow, maybe he really is providing a little comfort to this woman who is howling in the wilderness. Maybe, just maybe, strangers can be kind to one another just for the sake of being kind.” I’d like to believe that was true.
A friend once said to me, in all seriousness, “You make a great Christian, for a Jew.” What she meant, of course, was that I had acted like a decent person; a kind person. I don’t even remember what act prompted that statement, but since my friend is a devout believer, I took her words as the highest form of compliment. The truth is, we all need to strive for compassion, especially when that’s not the easy choice. We all need to accept that others are struggling to make sense of the world.
I’m not always great at showing compassion, but I’m getting better. I’m trying to be more sensitive to the ways in which people cry out for help, and I’m trying very very hard not to judge.
Who knows? Maybe this woman yelling into the phone was onto something. If Jesus himself doesn’t live within the Comcast cable lines, certainly those lines allowed his spirit to appear at Panera today.